WASHINGTON – Culminating years of frustration with the performance and behavior of the United Nations (search), the House voted Friday to slash U.S. contributions to the world body if it does not substantially change the way it operates.
The 221-184 vote, which came despite a Bush administration warning that such a move could actually sabotage reform efforts, was a strong signal from Congress that a policy of persuasion wasn't enough to straighten out the U.N.
"We have had enough waivers, enough resolutions, enough statements," said House International Relations Committee Chairman Henry Hyde (search), R-Ill., the author of the legislation. "It's time we had some teeth in reform."
The legislation would withhold half of U.S. dues to the U.N.'s general budget if the organization did not meet a list of demands for change. Failure to comply would also result in U.S. refusal to support expanded and new peacekeeping missions. The bill's prospects in the Senate are uncertain.
Just prior to the final vote, the House rejected, 216-190, an alternative offered by the top Democrat on the International Relations Committee, Tom Lantos (search) of California, that also would have outlined U.N. reforms but would have left it to the discretion of the secretary of state whether to withhold U.S. payments.
During the two days of debate, legislators discussed the seating of such human rights abusers as Cuba and Sudan on the U.N. Commission on Human Rights and the Oil-for-Food (search) program that became a source of up to $10 billion in illicit revenue for former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein (search).
Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., won backing for an amendment under which the United States would use its influence to ensure that any member engaged in acts of genocide or crimes against humanity would lose its U.N. membership and face arms and trade embargoes.
Hyde was joined by lawmakers with a litany of complaints against what they said was the U.N.'s lavish spending, its coddling of rogue regimes, its anti-America, anti-Israel bias and recent scandals such as the mismanagement of the Oil-for-Food program in Iraq and the sexual misconduct of peacekeepers.
The administration on Thursday had urged the Republican-led House to reconsider the legislation. The administration said in a statement that it is actively engaged in U.N. reform, and the Hyde bill "could detract from and undermine our efforts."
Eight former U.S. ambassadors to the United Nations, including Madeleine Albright and Jeane Kirkpatrick, also weighed in, telling lawmakers in a letter that withholding of dues would "create resentment, build animosity and actually strengthen opponents of reform."
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan (search) expressed support earlier this week for another congressional effort to bring about U.N. reform. A task force led by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Republican, and former Senate Majority leader George Mitchell, a Democrat, recommended such changes as setting up an independent auditing board and weighted voting on financial issues for members who contribute more to the budget.
Also Thursday, the administration supported a measured expansion of the Security Council, but said widespread reform of the United Nations takes precedence.
"We are not prepared to have Security Council reform sprint out ahead of the other extremely important reforms that have to take place," Rice said at a news conference. She cited management, peace-building and halting the proliferation of dangerous weapons technology.
The bill, with amendments, lists 46 reforms sought. They include cutting the public information budget by 20 percent, establishing an independent oversight board and an ethics office, and denying countries that violate human rights from serving on human rights commissions.
The secretary of state would have to certify that 32 of the 39 reforms have been met by September 2007, and all 39 by the next year, to avoid a withdrawal of 50 percent of assessed dues.
U.S.-assessed dues account for about 22 percent of the U.N.'s $2 billion annual general budget.
The financial penalties would not apply to the U.N.'s voluntarily funded programs, which include UNICEF and the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.